Five of the Best is a weekly series about things you probably don’t pay attention to when playing a game. Things like backpacks, zip wires, hands – we’ve had an eclectic bunch so far.
They sound insignificant but they provide essential flavour to a game, and you’ll find they’re welded to your memories of them. Try thinking about the best hands in games, for example – do any surface? Give it a moment: I bet a few appear. Hold onto that feeling – I want you to use it below.
Let’s try another, let’s try today’s: Five of the Best…
Horizons! No not Horizon the game – there aren’t five of them yet, although, coincidentally, Horizon does have nice horizons. I’m talking about what you see when you look up and beyond the playing space you’re in. The stuff out of arm’s reach. You might refer to it as a skybox but it isn’t limited to the sky. Maybe there’s a big mountain you’re trying to get to, or maybe it’s a big tower. Or maybe the horizon fires your imagination to fill out the rest of the world around you. Whatever the reason, I want to hear it.
Meanwhile, here are ours.
Bloodborne’s story revolves very heavily around the moon, and, as a result, it has both a functional and beautiful skyline that changes as you progress. The game takes place over one night, giving you three different moon phases throughout. The first two are suitably gothic – an evening and night time phase highlight the long night of the hunt – and between them are a few changes to enemies behaviour as well.
It’s only after defeating a certain boss in game where you get to third – Blood Moon – phase. This moves away from the more realistic skybox you’ve slaughtered your prey beneath so far to a bright orange moon surrounded by swirling purple clouds. This new dark fantasy look is emphasised by the Amygdala becoming visible – huge long-limbed creatures, clinging onto the walls and spires of Yharnam – and rather rather terrifyingly, they’ve been there all along (there are other ways to see them early, sure, but for the regular player this is when the world of Bloodborne truly changes).
It’s a turning point in the game where you should powerful, but instead there’s a sense of unease as you realise there are somehow even worse monsters than those you’ve faced so far. And all because of that gorgeous skybox.
It’s a bit like the Eye of Sauron, the Citadel in Half-Life 2. It’s the epicenter of all evil in the world, the dark heart you make your way to, massive in mind and reality – an impossibly sheer shard jutting out of the horizon into the clouds above it, dominating everything, casting a shadow over the whole Half-Life 2 world. And it seems to be watching you. Everywhere you go, Combine forces find you, commanded by the Citadel to halt your inexorable progress towards it. But they can’t because you’ve got a Gravity Gun, obviously. There’s even a big sciencey blob on top of the Citadel which looks like a giant magical eye.
By the time you get there, though, and begin climbing, the significance of the place – and the physical size of it – has magnified tenfold. What looked enormous on the horizon is bloody enormous face-to-face, and you’re busting to see what’s inside. What a lovely piece of build-up and pay-off. Half-Life 2 would be shapeless without it!
The beauty of Destiny’s horizons was giving you the illusion of something massive. You believed you were in an almost infinite playing space when, in reality, you weren’t. The playing areas quite small but you, looking up, believed you were in a world. And they moved, the skyboxes. Great peachy cloudscapes flowed above you; mountain vents exhaled; stars twinkled; asteroids twirled. Destiny did set-dressing on a planetary scale.
And then of course there was the Traveler, the great enigmatic blob hovering above earth close enough to touch – a brazen bit of sci-fi design. It’s not so much a part of the horizon as a horizon all of its own – it’s colossal. And it’s so impenetrable, making whatever secrets are inside it all the more desirable. Bungie sure has some artistic swagger.
Is it dawn or dusk? Sun up or sun down? Whatever the case, the rosy light of Crackdown, turning to gold at the horizon, was so much more than a regular skybox. Greeting players with a rotating view of Pacific City whenever they booted the game up, for some of us Crackdown’s horizon defined a generation of Xbox games, a world of huge draw distances and unparalleled freedom. All of that written in the clouds.
Funnily enough, when I think of the skybox of Crackdown, I never really think of it in-game. It’s always frozen here, in this moment of pre-play anticipation. Yet in the game it still does its part, staining the sky a variety of cocktail colours as you zip about far below lobbing grenades and exploding rubber ducks and scaling every building you can find. Of course Crackdown needed a great skybox – it was all about leaving the streets behind and propelling yourself into the firmament.
This one is a bit special. MirrorMoon EP has you exploring a bespoke universe, and whenever you’re on the surface of one of its many planets the sky above is the real sky, captured with rigour.
Why is this important? Because MirrorMoon is a game about trying to find one specific planet and – amazing tease – occasionally when you look to the sky around you, you can see one star with a circle around it.
That’s the one you’re after! But you can only see the circled star when you’re down on a planet. Back in the ship and in charge of the galaxy map, you have no such aids to direct you. So can you work out where the distant planet you glimpsed down on the surface might appear on the map? What a game. What. A. Game.